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  • Keith Newman

Neil Burden’s legacy - Caring for the Cape (Part 1 of 2)

Neil Burden has been committed to the health and safety of locals and the local environment for decades, and still at 86-years retains his duties as an honorary ranger checking on species growth with a watchful eye on the cliffs of the Cape for potential landslides.

Neil Burden standing next to his trusty tractor
Neil Burden standing next to his trusty tractor

Neil, one of the grandchildren of pioneering Te Awanga residents Thomas and Julia Burden who first camped there in the late 1890s, and still heads out around the coast on his quadbike checking on the growth of small crayfish on the southern side of the Cape. He prides himself on knowing the best fishing, crayfish and netting spots and has been involved in numerous search and rescue operations on sea and land.

His parents Mick (Percival Michael Witherden-Burden) and Jesse Burden had seven children; Neil was in the middle and is one of four surviving siblings; Maureen (nee Heaps), Helen, and the youngest Peter who in 2021 was aged 79-years.

Neil has always been a practical ‘hands on’ man, who liked to get on with the job; he resents creeping bureaucracy when it becomes unnecessarily complex demanding people sign off, certify, verify and tick more boxes.

He’s been involved with surf rescue and has a medal from Civil Defence for helping rescue people from the Cape “including towing out boats that have been sinking”, using his boat to spot where people are trapped up on the cliffs and putting lights up to direct the helicopters to come in.

In the days when there was only CB (Citizen Band) radio, the local community worked together with its own Civil Defence efforts. This included Mel Gudgeon who ran the Clifton Camp and Ian Hope who had the CB radio equipment, Neil’s wife Elizabeth who was also a CB operator, and key people in the community “who knew stuff” and had boats and tractors.

Pioneering gannet tours

Neil’s father Mick, having returned from WW1, was a committed fisherman who took on seasonal carpentry work and yard maintenance at Tomoana Freezing Works, and in the off-season built boats.

Mick had a commercial fishing license, mostly used to feed the family and neighbours. “From time to time, of course, we had friends in Hastings or Havelock we would trade with for apples or potatoes.”

Family members also used to drive around and ‘hawk’ some of the catches in different places, but the council insisted we needed “a hawker's licence".

He loved his Model T cars and pioneered the coastal trips to the Cape Kidnappers to see the gannets.

He was a member of the Forest and Bird Society and would take members out to the Cape in his Chrysler truck. Campers were often given the opportunity to join him and in those early days there was no charge.

Mick used to take the full family around the Cape at least once a year. They knew all the rocks and kept a close eye on the regular slips. If the way was blocked a group of locals including those staying at Burden’s Motor Camp, would go out with a pickaxe and shovels and some solid manual effort to clear the way. "We would say if you come out and give us a hand, we'll take your family out for nothing".

He recalls everyone had to sign in before walking or driving out to the Cape so a check could be made on who was out there and when they returned.

Scotsman’s Point at Clifton Beach has nothing to do with the Gordon’s. “People camping there with tents would ask those heading toward the Cape to pay a fee to go along the beach, even though it was Crown land, and it was named for those who refused to pay”.

The earliest gannet tours were unofficial, random and something his father did to educate and entertain friends and family.

Neil from about 15-years of age, along with his brother Jack, would take an old Model T Ford out along the coastal edge. Gannet Beach Adventures began officially in 1952 with a donation of a few shillings sought to cover the cost of petrol and wear and tear on the old vehicles.

Messing with Maraetotara

In those days Te Awanga was mostly baches, although several business people lived there and commuted into town and only five families had children attending Haumoana School. The children of several other families attended a private school in Te Awanga for a time.

On his way to the freezing works Mick would drop his children off at East Rd at 7am to walk the rest of the way to school “whether it was frost or rain....and we’d walk home three miles in the afternoon”.

Their home was the first house on the corner of Kuku St. “The camp really started out as a picnic ground and a camp for family and friends in the summertime. In the off season it was an opportunity to graze some sheep from the farm up the Charlton Road, to help fertilise the grass,” says Neil.

During the 1931 earthquake, the ground went down about 6 feet (2 metres) where the picnic ground used to be. “That was all raupo in there. My father organised myself, my cousins and others to help fill that in.”

In its heyday, he says, the camp was a gathering place with singalongs and open air movies. “We had dancing on the green under the tamarix trees with several piano accordions and other instruments. It was all friendly stuff.”

There were times, however, when the picnic ground flooded and when there was some man-made interference with the Maraetotara river, that also caused some flooding problems.

Neil Burden says it wasn’t a good idea to mess with the Maraetotara river. “In turn the current began to erode away our camping ground. When flooding occurred ... we had to row across the swollen river and open the mouth so it would go straight out to sea, lowering the water level so it wouldn’t affect all the septic tanks.”

He says volunteers including his father, himself and others were opening that river mouth at 2 o'clock in the morning or thereabouts for years. “It was about survival, looking after your property.”

The Te Awanga Lagoon as you approach the camp is today only a remnant of what it once was. Neil laments the efforts of those living at “the western end” who “vowed and declared that the water from the river should be brought right round the bottom of the camping ground and back in there, so it could flush the muck out of the water.”

“They finally managed to do it, possibly with the help of the County Council...and of course we got very high tides and the sea came in and washed the boats up on the road.”

That blocked the road for the buses on Wellwood Terrace taking workers into town so they had to be moved. Then, he says, “the sea filled in the lagoon with sand so they had drag lines in to clear it all out.”

Since then, he says, the Regional Council has changed the direction of the river and with less water coming down the Maraetotara there’s no longer a problem.


The Burden collection is now published.

From Te Awanga to Cape Kidnappers and more …

Peter Burden’s photos explore his life at Te Awanga, growing up at Burden’s Camp, and taking advantage of the beach environment and all it offered. The collection details the various vehicles owned by Peter and his brothers, stripped down to create “beach bombs”, as well as aspects of family life. Included in the family tradition are blossom parade entries, always in the humorous section of the parade, and often gaining awards.

Included are images of Peter’s father Mick, and his grandparents, showing a connection with Te Awanga and the cape that has been handed down through the generations.


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